I’m yet again falling far behind on my blogs. The Czech Republic holds this amazing yearly festival, which they call Be2Can. It’s a series of films from Berlin, Venice, and Cannes, many of which are screened with English subtitles. I caught The Square, A Gentle Creature, The Unknown Girl, On Body and Soul, and Loveless. This is also probably the order in which I liked the films (the last two are interchangeable for me).
Ruben Östlund’s third great film in a row. The funny thing about Östlund is that, while he’s operating on a very provocative level, he’s also sort of making screwball comedies. I felt the same about Force Majeure (not so much about Play, though I love both films). In The Square all of the elements are there: smart-alec, often fast dialogue (I’m thinking in particular of the great scene between Christian (Claes Bang) and Anne (Elisabeth Moss) in the museum and after their night together); some kind of sort of romantic/sexual subplot; a reversal of gender roles (maybe not a hallmark of classic screwball, but Hawks definitely courted this idea more than a few times with His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby); and of course, an added level of absurdity that spirals things out of control.
There’s also hints of magical realism in the film. The celebrated scene at the museum dinner ends with a beating, and then hard cuts to something entirely different. That beating is never mentioned again. Nor are any consequences. It’s like it didn’t happen. I think Östlund likes blurring these lines. At what point during that scene do we move from pure reality to something less so? It’s unclear, but I’m pretty certain it happens.
Speaking of those hard cuts, Östlund seems to love that transition. There are so many edits that feel almost like shock cuts. A prime example: Christian and Michael (Christopher Læssø) drive to the apartment building. We cut from a quiet scene of them in the office to a motorcycle roaring by. The camera then pans to reveal Christian driving. That abrupt sound cut features throughout The Square.
From the standpoint in which I often write this blog, the blocking in The Square is simple. Characters tend to land on marks and stay there. But it’s so precise and the coverage is so effective. I love the series of 2-shots, for example, that the director uses in a scene where a group of young, arrogant marketers pitch Christian on an idea. There’s not really a master. We cut between three separate 2-shots. The strategy shows us a kind of hierarchy (or at least alignment of interests) and keeps the three groups so separate and distant from one another. They’re all in their own bubble.
I quite like the blocking in The Square. It’s a great example of how staging doesn’t need to look complex or be coverage-heavy, but also doesn’t need to adhere only to long takes and static cameras.
A Gentle Creature
2 hours of the 2 hour 23 minute runtime of Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature are flawless. I mean this film is pretty well perfect for me up until a bold, not entirely successful change that moves us from harsh, sometimes funny reality to Alice In Wonderland.
I wonder if Loznitsa or anyone else considered cutting that ending sequence a different way. I’d be really curious to see this film where you go right from the shots of “the gentle creature” (Vasilina Makovtseva) undressing and the soldiers laughing, to her entering the police wagon. You’d skip the entire section of speeches, which are for me on-the-nose and tiresome (though funny and well performed).
One of the funny things about this ending sequence is that the shot that leads us into it (Marina Kleshcheva’s character entering the train station) is one of the best. The sound design is amazing here. Those trains in the background and rhythmic and ominous and basically function like an eerie score. Her performance – the way she sneaks in – is so stealthy. And the staging of all of those sleeping people is perfectly atmospheric. I got the chills at this scene.
That said, those first 2 hours are unbelievable. Such staging! Such side characters (who become main characters)! I don’t know how someone makes this film. It would be so difficult to make. The ease with which Loznitsa moves away from his protagonist to find endlessly interesting supporting cast members is awesome and electrifying.
The Unknown Girl
I love the Dardennes. This is – in a great way – a lot of what you expect from them. Incredible performances. Handheld camera with a lot of long takes. Some sort of narrative about guilt and redemption.
While I liked The Unknown Girl a lot, it’s the first time in one of their films that I’ve had some believability issues. A few things just bumped for me. How much Jenny (Adèle Haenel) became obsessed with Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), the ending conversation. Neither of these quite landed. I get that Jenny is an obsessive character (and a compassionate one, at that) but these felt like a stretch (the first one) or on the nose (the second one).
Anyway, regardless of all of this The Unknown Girl is totally absorbing. It’s always great to see an Olivier Gourmet performance and he doesn’t disappoint here. The sound design is omnipresent, realistic, and loud. I liked it a lot.
On Body and Soul & Loveless
I wanted to like both of these films a lot, particularly since I really like On Body and Soul director Ildikó Enyedi’s film Simon the Magician, and I like every other Andrei Zvyagintsev film that I’ve seen. But neither worked for me. The former had some awesome dream sequences and a few character reversals that I quite liked, but seemed to underuse some of its stronger points, and had characters and relationships that stretched believability and likability too much. Interestingly, I didn’t know that a woman directed it going in. I had some strong feelings about the female representations in here. I’d love to read an interview by her.
I loved the last 45 minutes of Loveless. It’s a beautiful film and the pacing at the end is agonizing (and better for it). But the setup is so melodramatic. I get that you need to pace that out differently, spend a lot of time with the two parents to make the search and their brief changes worthwhile, etc, but from their first argument on it felt really unsubtle and obvious.